There has been a lot of development in web conferencing platforms in the last few years, making some of the distinctions made in the past (and featured in readings here) less relevant. The notes that follow are based on my experience with web conferencing which includes two platform selection competitions and use of almost all platforms over the last 15 years.
Since I started working in post secondary online learning in 2004, preparing to have a successful web conferencing session has been a major issue, and it is almost as hard today as it was back then. Web conferencing is still the most difficult task most people will ask of their computer and internet connection. You are recording with a web camera and microphone, and uploading this feed in real-time. At the same time you are downloading video and audio from several participants to display instantly on your screen.
Here are some key challenges and strategies to meet them.
Most web conferencing systems will work best with at least 10 to 15 mbs download speed and 1 to 1.5 mbs upload speed. You can test the download and upload speed of your internet service at Speedtest.net (https://www.speedtest.net/). If you have sufficient speed with your internet connection you might not be home-free yet. Are there others sharing your internet connection? A partner also on a web conferencing call? Kids on Netflix or XBox? Or is the cat watching YouTube? Any of these can limit the bandwidth available for your web conference session. Plan ahead and book the bulk of your internet connection for important web conference sessions. If others in your household are reading or shopping online, this won’t impact your session.
The way you connect to the internet in your house may also impact the quality of your web conferencing session. In the past connecting to the internet with a wired (ethernet) connection provided a more consistent connection than wifi. In many places, perhaps including your home, wifi today is just as dependable as a wired connection. If your issues with web conferencing seem to indicate interruptions to your internet connection are an issue then you should try to be connected with a wired connection.
Web conferencing platforms that you will work with typically work through your internet browser or provide a small application that you download onto your computer. You will hear about web conferencing systems that connect established rooms with permanently installed hardware. These systems, often connected via satellite, are very expensive and have almost disappeared except for unique circumstances.
You will need a web camera, speakers or headphones and microphone on your computer to fully participate in a web conferencing session. If you use a laptop, it probably has a camera and microphone already installed. The camera is probably fine but laptop microphones can vary widely in quality. This is a point where you may want to consider upgrading your equipment.
Camera: Laptop cameras are often fine for a ‘head and shoulders’ shot. If you need a camera that can display other scenes, or if your computer doesn’t have a camera, you will need an external web camera which will typically connect via a USB cable.
Microphone & speakers: The best option for web conferencing is a headset (headphones + wrap-around microphone) or earbuds with cord microphone (like those used with smartphones). This configuration helps reduce feedback (sound from speakers looping back into the microphone) and offers better quality voice transmission. If you don’t have a headset or earbuds with microphone, using headphones along with your built in microphone will prevent feedback.
Once you have the hardware you will use for web conferencing, you will need to configure your system to use this gear when participating in a web conference. In most systems (whether browser-based or with a specific application, you will be given options to choose a camera, microphone and speakers/headphones at the start of your first session. You will probably also be asked to give permission for the browser or application to access these tools. You may also have the ability to adjust settings for your hardware: speaker/headphone volume, microphone gain level, virtual background for your camera. Once you have done this, your settings will probably be remembered in your browser or withing the application.
If you have difficulty selecting your choice for these hardware, your first recourse is to look for icons or menu options within the web conferencing platform that allow you to manage settings. This might be a microphone icon that opens a widget that allows you to choose a microphone and set the gain level, or a menu item called ‘webcam’ that lets you select from cameras attached to the computer and to set a virtual background. These options may also be found within a generic ‘settings’ icon or menu item on your web conferencing platform.
When solutions to hardware issues cannot be resolved within your web conferencing program they may be addressed within the settings component of your operating system. This may be the point where you need to reach out for help or advice for this. Putting together a good question for a Google search can also be a good way of getting help when you need to configure hardware in your operating system.
Once you have your computer hardware and network connection sorted out, you can improve your appearance within the web conferencing space with a properly positioned web camera and appropriate lighting. Simply stated, your web camera should be at eye level. It should be positioned to capture a head and shoulder shot, or slightly further back to capture your upper body and head. You should work with the lights you have available to ensure that you are well lit from behind the camera so that your face is visible and clear, but not washed out.
You can participate in a web conference with your phone or tablet almost as easily as with your laptop. A small tripod with phone adaptor will help you position your camera and keep your phone stable. Remember you will be touching your phone to operate your web conferencing platform. Bluetooth connected headphones with integrated microphone will also help.